Covering old ground

Perry Bridge farmers Jen Ribolli and David and Ruth Read are leading the way with their regenerative approach to pasture management.

Over the last sixteen years, the family’s beef and sheep farm has pioneered innovative techniques in soil health and perennial pastures with impressive results.

Growing up on the farm, Jen recalls the amount of time her father spent on weed management and fertilising.

“It didn’t feel right,” said Jen. “We felt there had to be a better way.”

Before 2001, their focus was very much on salt-based fertilizers and heavy chemical use. Attending workshops and programs organised by the Maffra and District Landcare Network and West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority (WGCMA), Jen, David and Ruth were able to explore other approaches to farm management.

“We had access to some very good educators – people with a lot of experience in holistic management and soil health,” explained Jen.

“We learned about dividing paddocks into smaller lots and rotating the stock to allow the pasture to recover, and understanding the relationship between the health of soil and the grass.”

“Our first change was moving to cell grazing, but that didn’t get us where we wanted to be,” continued David.

“Then through a grazing management course, we learned about a holistic approach to grazing, focusing on a long recovery period for the plants.

“This involved short bursts of intensive grazing – usually four lots of thirty days – then allowing the paddock to rest for up to twelve months.”

This new approach meant the trio increased the amount of perennial pasture, which now covers 80-90 per cent of the property. The farm’s original 25 paddocks were divided up into 88 smaller lots, with large mobs feeding in small areas, while the rest of the property recovered.

In this year’s challenging conditions, the results are clear to see ­­‑ the pasture growth on their property clearly outstrips the surrounding landscape.

“In late April, after a week of 30-degree temperatures, with a howling northerly and topsoil blowing everywhere, we shifted a mob of cattle without raising any dust,” said David. “That demonstrates the benefits of managing your ground cover.”

Despite a hot dry summer (with just 90mm rain so far this year, from a rolling annual rainfall of 430mm), there is still plenty of feed for their stock and a solid cover of perennial grasses.

“The perennial grasses still have active solar panels and the soil and its microbes are protected with a litter layer,” explained David. “The stock has enough to eat and keep performing and that creates turn-over for our business.”

David said their grazing and pasture management system ensures they use every available drop of rain and maximise their production.

“When the rain comes it will all soak in. There will be no loss of soil, no room for weeds to grow, the grass will take off and give us plenty of winter feed. With deep-rooted perennials that have time to recover, the plants also access more nutrients cutting our fertiliser bill dramatically.

“Our grazing charts track the number of animals and the amount of feed we have ahead of us,” continued David.

“We know exactly how many animals we can run per acre, based on an average rainfall. Every animal that comes onto the property will have three months of feed in front of them. This means there is always time to make a decision about our stock levels.”

Jen described their approach as planned grazing … with chaos.

“We wanted to have a neat formula, but you need that chaos in there,” smiled Jen. “That chaos is some new learning we added to our system in the last two years.”

“We match our stock to our carrying capacity, so that gives us a bit of flexibility. Even if we get it wrong, we know how to fix it and how to let the land recover.”

Healthy Soils Sustainable Farms is supported by West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority through funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Program.

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Farm walk at Perry Bridge
David Read explains regenerative grazing as part of a farm-walk tour, with Dougal Wallace (Ag Vic), Jenny O’Sullivan (Gippsland Food Adventures) and Ralph Cotter (Ag Vic)
Farm walk, Perry Bridge 2018
Jen Ribolli and David Read discuss perennial pasture on their Woodcote farm, with Jenny O’Sullivan (Gippsland Food Adventures) and Tony Gardner (WGCMA).
Farm Walk Perry Bridge 2018
Ruth Read explains the Regenerative Grazing Principles used on their Woodcote farm.